NEW ORLEANS - The future of the NBA in New Orleans is showing increasing promise, even though fans and businesses pouring money into Hornets tickets and sponsorships have no guarantee that games will be played next season.
As the Hornets introduced Chevron as their fifth million-dollar corporate sponsor on Wednesday, team president Hugh Weber said the franchise is closing in on several goals seen as necessary to ensure pro basketball’s long-term presence in New Orleans.
Weber said he has been encouraged by gains in community support even as the NBA lockout threatens to cancel part or all of next season, and as sports fans increasingly turn their attention to the onset of the NFL and college football seasons.
“Momentum is our most valuable commodity, and at a time when no one is talking about basketball, we’re still making progress,” Weber said. “That speaks to how the community feels about the team and how important they feel it is for the team to have a long-term legacy here in New Orleans.”
For now, the Hornets are owned by the NBA, which bought the team in December from founder George Shinn and former minority owner Gary Chouest. NBA Commissioner David Stern has said the league wants to improve the team’s revenue streams to the point where a buyer who is committed to operating the team in Louisiana will step forward.
The Hornets have never had as many as five seven-figure sponsors for a single season, Weber said, adding that the franchise also has prospects for adding a sixth.
Season tickets have reached 8,900, which already represents an increase of 2,600 over last season.
Meanwhile, the club is working toward a new TV contract and new arena lease.
Weber said the primary goal of a new TV deal, which would begin after next season, is to have games televised in more households throughout the region.
Currently, Cox Sports TV, which broadcasts most Hornets games, is not available on satellite provider DirecTV. Until a deal was worked out in middle of last season, viewers in relatively affluent suburbs on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain also could not see games on their local cable system.
“At end of the day, long-term, what we’re concerned about is exposure to fans and that they can follow the team no matter where they live,” Weber said.
The Hornets’ current lease of the state-owned New Orleans Arena runs through 2014 and includes a provision allowing the team to leave if attendance falls below an average of 14,735 over a two-year period. Weber said the team is talking with the governor about a lease extension that would remove those attendance benchmarks, which he added won’t be an issue anyway if the Hornets reach a season ticket base of 10,000.
In June, the Hornets launched a ticket initiative in which they planned to hold 100 promotional events in 100 days, many of them in the homes of season-ticket holders who’ve recruited friends or business associates to buy tickets as well.
They have held about 80 events so far, including some industry-specific mixers for those working in law, medicine, construction, finance, and oil and gas. One event was held at a law office on Tuesday, and more were scheduled through Sept. 14.
While the lockout makes it tough for Weber to promise fans and businesses entertainment value in the upcoming season, he has sought to tie New Orleans’ prospects for sustained growth to its ability to retain its major pro sports franchises.
The Hornets have sought to win over fans off the court with contributions to the city’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Katrina. The team has rebuilt public basketball courts throughout town, helped rebuild homes, and worked with schools to give tickets and merchandise to students with good grades and behavior records.
Last year, the Hornets joined with Chevron to raise $200,000 to promote the recovery of the seafood industry and coastal habitats after the BP oil spill.
Warner Williams, vice president of Chevron’s Gulf of Mexico business unit, said working with the Hornets on public service initiatives motivated him to do more to solidify the franchise’s footing in New Orleans.
“It’s really about supporting the economic sustainability of the region and ensuring the team stays in the city,” said Williams, who first came to New Orleans to work for Chevron in the mid-1970s, when the Jazz was New Orleans’ team and Pete Maravich delighted fans in the Louisiana Superdome.
Now, with New Orleans still rebuilding from a disaster that destroyed his mother-in-law’s home six years ago, he doesn’t want to see the NBA leave his adopted hometown again.
“Having two professional teams in the city is important,” Williams said.
“There’s a lot of morale building that goes on at these Hornets games.”